"By taking responsibility for the environmental impacts of its expired equipment, the shipping industry is setting a high standard for other industries to emulate," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which provides the Convention's secretariat. "These Guidelines also demonstrate once again the vital contribution that the Basel Convention is making to reducing the risks of hazardous wastes."
Although ships played a role in inspiring the international community to adopt the Basel Convention in 1989 - as the vehicles for highly publicized cargoes of hazardous wastes sent from industrialized countries for dumping in developing and East European countries - it is only in the last several years that the toxic materials they themselves are made of have become a priority issue.
The decommissioning of a large vessel may involve the removal of many tonnes of hazardous wastes, including Persistent Organic Pollutants such as PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and lead, asbestos, and oil and gas. Dismantling can also result in the release of dioxin and sulphur fumes. Workers, local communities, coastal and ocean biodiversity, groundwater and air are all at risk.
The 89-page Guidelines seek to minimize or eliminate these risks by introducing universally applied principles for the environmentally sound management of ship dismantling. They detail procedures and good practices for decommissioning and selling obsolete ships, dismantling them, sorting the parts (for reuse, recycling and disposal), identifying potential contaminants, preventing toxic releases, monitoring environmental impacts, and responding to emergencies and accidents. They also address the design, construction and operation of ship dismantling facilities.
The demolition of ships involves many high-risk activities, particularly at low-cost, labour-intensive operations. At the same time, ship breaking contributes significantly to local and national economies. Most ships are about 80-90% steel, which can be sold as scrap metal for reprocessing. Other valuable components, such as engines, electrical equipment, furniture, pumps and valves, and much more can also be profitably recycled.
Because ship breaking is so labour intensive, the industry has established a strong presence in several Asian developing countries, which also provide eager markets for the recycled parts. India breaks 42% of the vessels that are dismantled every year, Bangladesh 7%, Pakistan 6%, China 4%, and the rest of the world 41%.
As world trade expands so does the global shipping fleet. It is estimated that 500-700 merchant vessels, including oil tankers and cargo ships, will be scrapped annually over the next 15 years. The average age of the cargo-carrying fleet is now 18 years, compared to an average scrapping age of 25-26 years.
Concerned that the practices at major breaking yards violate the Basel Convention's provisions, the EU is studying the feasibility of dismantling ships in Europe. The US has prohibited the export of government-owned vessels to the major breakers and is also considering its own disposal capacity. The Asian ship breakers are deeply concerned not to lose this important business.
The new guidelines are being developed by the Basel Convention's Technical Working Group. The International Maritime Organization (addressing safety and environmental issues in international shipping), the International Chamber of Shipping (now drafting the first-ever guidelines on how shipbuilders can minimize the environmental impacts of the retirement phase of a ship's life cycle), the International Labour Organization (addressing serious issues of occupational safety and health), and environmental NGOs are all contributing to the process.
The draft Guidelines are being presented to the 18th Session of the Technical Working Group, which meets from 18-20 June. The plan it to finalize them by the 19th Session next October for adoption by the Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention in 2002.
The Basel Convention was adopted in March 1989 after a series of notorious "toxic cargoes" from industrialized countries drew public attention to the dumping of hazardous wastes in developing and East European countries. The Convention regulates the movement of these wastes and obliges its members to ensure that such wastes are managed and disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Governments are expected to minimize the quantities that are transported, to treat and dispose of wastes as close as possible to where they were generated, and to minimize the generation of hazardous waste at source.
Due to different reporting methods in many countries, it is extremely difficult to produce reliable statistics on the generation and cross-border movements of hazardous waste. According to statistics that many governments have provided to the Basel Convention, about 252 million tonnes of hazardous wastes were generated worldwide in 1998.
Statistics on cross-border trade show that most transported waste was recycled. According to export statistics, 10% went for disposal, 83% for recycling, and 7% unknown; according to import statistics, 14% went for disposal, 73% for recycling, and 13% unknown.
Note to journalists: There will be a press conference on Tuesday, 19 June, at 13h15 in Room 3 by Basel Technical Working Group Chairman Mr. Jawed Ali Khan (Pakistan) Basel Executive Secretary Ms. Sachiko Kuwabara-Yamamoto; ILO Senior Technical Specialist Mr. Paul Bailey, and Mr. Jens Henning Koefoed of IMO. For more information, contact Michael Williams at +41-22-917-8242, +41-79-4091528 (cell), or firstname.lastname@example.org. See also www.basel.int and www.ilo.org/safework/shipbreaking.
UNEP News Release 01/83